Who Remembers The Million Dollar Race?

A race that Heavy will never forget

They call him ‘Heavy’, which in all fairness isn’t the most complimentary nickname to have if you’re a professional jockey. However, Heavelon van der Hoven makes light of the reference.

“Even the commentators call me ‘Heavy’, but that’s because it’s easier than pronouncing my full name. I’m 52kg, so it doesn’t worry me at all!” he tells Gary Lemke.

Gary Lemke writes that it’s 07h30 Sydney time when we’re talking and his hybrid accent is a dead giveaway of the last four years he’s spent in Australia. He has just had his first winner in three weeks, and the 55th of his Australian career since moving there in 2019.

The number 55 is significant. Now 31, the Namibian-born jockey, has bettered the 54 he compiled in South Africa after first booting home a filly called Knock ‘Em Out at Hollywoodbets Durbanville in September 2012.

He also upped his total to 30 for the 2023/24 season in Australia, which is three more than the most he rode in a campaign in South Africa, the 27 in 2015/16.

One of those came aboard a colt called Illuminator on 23 January 2016. It remains the defining moment of his career.

To understand where Van Der Hoven is right now, we need to revisit that summer’s day.

Famously, he was working at trainer Glen Puller’s yard on the morning of the richest race ever staged in Africa – the CTS Million Dollar over 1400m. The first prize was $500 000. On the day the rand-dollar exchange rate was 16.45, which meant that the winning horse would bank R8.23-million for the connections.

Weichong Marwing, the booked jockey for the 16/1 outsider Illuminator, had to forfeit his obligation on the morning of the Investec Day Of Dreams, and the apprentice made himself available. After a few frantic phone calls to co-owner Francis Carruthers, who was at the beach, his partner Ian Robinson made the decision to give Van Der Hoven the ride.

Illuminator and Heavelon van der Hoven flash up the outside as Aldo Domeyer (Silver Mountain) and MJ Byleveld (Victorious Jay) glance across in apparent surprise! (Pic – Hamish Niven )

The rest, as one might say, is both history and hysteria.

Standing at the crowded rail outside the Investec tent, only 50 metres from the finishing post, was a host of invited sponsors’ guests. One of them was the-then leader of the government opposition, the DA’s Mmusi Maimane, and another the Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille.

As the field surged past, racing for the line, the noise of the commentator – England’s Richard Hoiles – was drowned out, but the words ‘Silver Mountain’ were clear. As were the yellow and black silks being worn by Aldo Domeyer on the filly, and it looked from that vantage point that the favourite was going to get to the line first.

“Did Silver Mountain win?” Maimane turned and asked the Mayor. Someone else then said, “I think the horse nearest us won!”

“Oh, no, then I backed the wrong horse!” the affable Maimane said. Harsh critics might argue that it applied to his political career as well.

Silver Mountain hadn’t won. Nor had Victorious Jay and there’s a photograph forever etched in time which shows both Domeyer and MJ Byleveld with disbelief on their faces as they look across at the horse that had flashed up on the outside to pip them to the $500,000 first prize.

There it is, Illuminator, wearing the No9 saddle cloth. He had come with a rattling late run to snare the favourite in the last few strides.

“I’ve seen that picture. I only knew that I got up just short of the winning post. I haven’t ever watched the full race, but obviously on YouTube I’ve seen the finish. But, I knew at the time that I’d won,” Van der Hoven reflects.

Happy dollar day! Messrs Carruthers and Robinson lead their star in as Glen Puller congratulates Heavelon – Garth Puller is far right (Pic – Hamish Niven)

Indeed, Illuminator, paying R20 for a win and R3.40 for a place on the Tote, had got up under a perfect ride to beat the 17/10 favourite Silver Mountain for his third win in six starts.

As an apprentice, it wasn’t clear as to how much the-then 24-year-old Van der Hoven would pocket. However, while chatting across the time zones, he admitted that he eventually got a life-changing amount, ‘for which I was eternally grateful’.

Illuminator never raced again. He died from complications following colic surgery.

Co-owner Robinson said at the time: “Most of his intestines were black and, after cutting, there was not enough healthy gut to re-attach. We could not get him to pass anything and he just seemed to get worse and worse. Eventually, we took him to Glen Puller’s farm, gave him a shot of morphine where he passed away. The surgery could not save him.”

Van der Hoven confirms the story. “He’d recovered nicely from a cannon bone injury. We were getting him ready for the Durban season and everything was going good. Then he got colic and rolled in his box and got banged up. It was really, really bad. And then he got a knot in his stomach…”

There’s a pause, and he swallows hard. Then he says, “I still want to get a tattoo of him. He changed my life.”

That was then, this is now.

Van der Hoven’s win in May aboard the maiden filly Junebug over 1280m at Muswellbrook, north-west of Sydney, was his first since copping a five-meeting suspension, and took his tally to 30 wins for the season and his career total of winners in his adopted land to 55. And, it nudged him up to 179th on the Australian jockey championship this campaign. Yes, 179th.

Now, to put that into perspective. If he had ridden 30 winners in South Africa this season, he’d be lying 23rd of 64, between Piere Strydom and Diego De Gouveia. To apply even more perspective, Maddison Morris has ridden one winner in Australia this 2023/24 campaign, which also ends on 31 July. She lies 619th on a jockeys’ list of 788.

Van der Hoven is one of several jockeys in Australia with South African roots.

Among them are Jacob Opperman, whose 54 winners for 2023/24 placed him 71st towards the end of May, the championship being led by James Orman (149 wins). Elsewhere, the South Africans are dotted seemingly everywhere.

Callan Murray – then the only other apprentice in the 2016 CTS Million Dollar – is 104th (43 wins), Chad Schofield 129th, Karl Zechner 144th, Sean Cormack 150th, Jayden Lloyd 222nd, Brandon Lerena 279th and Marnu Potgieter 377th (8 wins).

Jaden and Jeff Lloyd (Pic – Supplied)

Mark du Plessis, the former Zimbabwe champion jockey is 141st. Teaque Gould, who rode the jackpot at Fairview in 2017, hasn’t entered the No1 box this season and lies 668th, just behind Donovan Dillon in 663rd.

The above list is a snapshot of how many South African ex-pats there are riding in Australia and how competitive it is.

It’s safe to say that Van der Hoven is having the best season of his career – and loving every moment of it.

His frequent use of the word ‘yeah’, and mention that he and fellow Saffas Lerena and Dillon “often spend off-time together and have barbeques”, highlights the fact that Sydney, not Cape Town, is home.

“Brandon is about 25 minutes from where I live. We are quite close and get together when we’re not racing a lot, or when suspended, or when we have a Sunday off.”

He’s formed a profitable partnership with trainer Annabel Neasham, for whom he has had 23 winners at a percentage of 20.9%, with Schofield having booted home 25 for her at a strike rate of 12%. Next best on his personal career list of trainers is nine – Garth Puller and Australian Bjorn Baker – while he rode eight winners for Mike Robinson.

Heavy’s first Australian winner! (Pic – Supplied)

Neasham sits sixth in the current trainers’ championship.

“She’s a very big stable. She’s got three yards in Australia – Melbourne, Gold Coast and Sydney. She’s a good person, very loyal. She reminds me of Vaughan Marshall, who is like that. You put in the hard work in the mornings and you get the rides and results.”

Van der Hoven admits it’s not easy when not riding.

“Being suspended hurts the jockeys because obviously there’s no income. So you know, it’s the same as anywhere. But the rules are stricter over here and there’s more race reviews and bans than in South Africa. We don’t have a false rail in Australia, which means we race a lot tighter and there’s very little room to make an error. The stats show that there’s more suspensions and more falls than elsewhere.” The obvious question to ask is, “why”?

“Back in South Africa, you can take your time and wait for the gaps to open. Here, when you come into the home stretch, those ahead of you are fanned across. So, you have to wait for the gap, or you have to look to create a gap – but in that saying there’s a wall of other jockeys behind you trying to do the same thing. Often you just keep shifting out and shifting out and you have to make quick, safe decisions as to how you want to produce your horse.”

The comparisons and differences continue. It’s always a good thing seeing how the other half live.

“Sydney is where it’s at. Every day there’s racing here. It’s all on grass, so it can get quite muddy, but there’s a poly track in Canberra, the capital.”

Sydney actually has four different racecourses, what they call ‘metropolitan racetracks’ over there.

“I really enjoy riding at Royal Randwick, which is a right-handed course, but Newcastle, in New South Wales, a left-handed track, is probably my favourite here.”

Van der Hoven then nails his flag to the mast.

“It’s no secret that even when I wasn’t riding a lot I still loved it over here. I always had Australia at the back of my mind. I always wanted to try it from my side. Especially in Sydney. Everyone tries to come and make it in Sydney because the stakes are much higher and there’s so much competition. When I came here I didn’t have friends and other jockeys sort of dislike you because they think you’re taking their money. My experience is that the locals don’t warm to foreigners too easily.”

It’s not just the safety net of the 11 000km separating Cape Town and Sydney, nor the eight-hour time zone that allows Van der Hoven to speak frankly. In fact, it’s captivating to hear him expand on his views.

“Australia is very tough for a jockey looking for rides. The owners have a lot of say in who they want to ride their horses and South Africa is not always like that. Over there, the trainer has influence. Which brings me back to Mr Marshall. He always backed those who worked for him, doing the behind-the-scenes stuff. I have immense respect for him. It didn’t matter how many times things didn’t go according to plan. He would always back his jockey, and that’s not easy to find over here.”

However, through all the ups and downs, Van der Hoven is thriving. He has even been able to work on his golf game. “Sometimes a couple of jocks will play on a Friday. I don’t have an official handicap but easily break 100 every time. But, I’d rather be on the race course than the golf course!”

That’s exactly what’s happening as the rides start to come again. And with more rides come more winners.

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